M.G. Piety

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Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm
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Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Uncategorized on November 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

I think of scholarship as egalitarian. I don’t know about all disciplines, but most academic journals in the field of philosophy do what’s called “blind” reviewing. Scholars send articles to journal editors. The editors then send those articles along to experts in the relevant fields (e.g., Plato, Kant, contemporary ethics, the philosophy of mind) without identifying the author of the article. The people vetting the articles don’t know who wrote them. They don’t know whether the author is already a recognized authority in the relevant field or a complete newcomer. They don’t even know whether the author has an academic appointment, is an “independent scholar,” or even a lowly graduate student. All they have is the article, so they are more or less forced to evaluate it on its own merits. The system isn’t perfect, of course. Unconventional or iconoclastic work is not always evaluated fairly, and the work of the more prominent scholars in given fields can sometimes be identified even without their names being attached.

Still, blind reviewing goes a long way toward ensuring that good work gets recognized and promoted. Unfortunately, book publishing is not so egalitarian. Some publishers do blind reviewing, but many do not. Once a scholar has attained a name for him or herself in a given field, that is, once a scholar has become what one might call an academic celebrity, they are given a wide berth in terms of their perceived authority. Big name scholars can often get away with speaking, and sometimes even writing books, on subjects outside their area of expertise.

Daphne Hampson’s new book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) is a case in point. Hampson is a prominent U.K. theologian, not a Kierkegaard scholar. She gives the impression that she is a Kierkegaard scholar by throwing around a few Danish terms. She refers, for example to Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst. When I saw that I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new English translation of this work of which I was unaware. There isn’t. Hampsen’s substitution of the Danish Angst for “Anxiety” in the title of this work is simply an affectation.

Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers who are beloved by people who are not themselves scholars; hence reviews of new editions of his works, and occasionally even of new scholarly books on his thought, sometimes appear in the illustrious New York Review of Books. The Nov. 10th edition, in fact, contains a review of Hampson’s book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Rebellion.” The reviewer is a Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Havard and the author of Adorno and Existence (Harvard, 2016)

It isn’t all that clear why the NYRB decided to review Hampson’s book, or why they chose Gordon to review it. While both Hampson and Gordon have a certain familiarity with Kierkegaard because of their respective areas of scholarly expertise (Hampson’s in the history of theological thought and Gordon’s in modern European intellectual history), neither is a Kierkegaard scholar. The book is riddled with problems, problems that will be conspicuous to most Kierkegaard scholars, but which Gordon failed to spot. Hampson gets Kierkegaard’s epistemology wrong. She claims erroneously that Kierkegaard “has very little hold on the idea that there is a regularity to nature” (p 29). She falsely accuses him of being unfamiliar with David Strauss’s ground breaking book on the historical Jesus, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) (1835).

These are just a few of the problems with Hampson’s book, problems to which Gordon fails to alert prospective readers. In fact, Gordon says very little about the content of the book, but restricts himself to giving a general overview of Kierkegaard’s works and his place, or presumed place, in the history of thought that has little directly to do with Hampson’s treatment of Kierkegaard.

It’s generally dangerous to venture to write a book on a thinker, as well as to review a book on a thinker, on whose thought you do not specialize. And, to quote Kierkegaard, “what is worse for those brave souls who nevertheless dare to undertake such a project, the difficulty is not one that will confer celebrity on those who preoccupy themselves with it” (Philosophical Crumbs, p. 113). Unfortunately, Hampson’s book is so off base, at least in its chapter on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, that it amounts to a caricature of scholarship.

A single example will suffice to make this point. Hampson accuses Kierkegaard scholars of failing to appreciate a crucial fact about his view of the natural world. Kierkegaard, she charges, “thinks the world a kind of random place in which just about anything can happen.” Kierkegaard, she continues, lacks any sense for “the regularity of nature” or that natural events are subject to natural law (p. 92).

Unfortunately for Hampson, Kierkegaard scholars have not missed this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought because this isn’t an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard did believe in the existence of laws of nature. Hampson rightly observes that Kierkegaard “picks up the distinction in Aristotle between a ‘change’ which consists in a coming into existence (kinesis) and a change which presupposes existence (alloiosis) (what we might call a change taking place within the causal nexus),” but she fails to appreciate the significance of this distinction for Kierkegaard.

Hampson even goes so far as to remark that it is “strange” that Kierkegaard “does not appreciate that there is any real distinction between the two kinds of ‘change’“ (p. 91) identified by Aristotle, given that he refers to them himself when speaking about the change of coming to be. She chastises Kierkegaard for writing “150 years after Newton,” and yet failing to have any “sense of the regularity with which change takes place in predetermined fashion within a causal nexus” (91).

It would be pretty weird if Kierkegaard failed to have any sense for what one could call the “regularity of nature.” As most Kierkegaard scholars know, however, Kierkegaard does have such a sense, as is easily seen by anyone who pays careful attention to the portion of the Crumbs from which Hampson gets this strange impression. After Kierkegaard explains that “[e]verything that has come to be is eo ispo historical, he goes on to say that

That thing, the becoming of which is a simultaneous becoming (Nebeneinander, Space), has no other history than this, but even seen in this way (en masse), independently of what an ingenious consideration in a more specific sense calls the history of nature, nature has a history.

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be, which is the past; and that it is, the present) (p. 143, emphasis added).

That is, nature’s whole “history” is that it came to be at some point. After that, the “changes” that characterize nature do not represent change in Aristotle’s sense of kinesis but only in his sense of alloiosis. Kierkegaard takes pains to be clear on this point. Purely natural events are changes in something (i.e., nature) that already exists. They do not come about freely, but are subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history.” It has only an “intimation of a history” in that it came to be at some point. Mountain ranges do not become mature in the same sense that people do. Human beings have choices. Human events are not like plate tectonics.

How could Hampson miss that? It’s right there in the text. That’s why the purported fact of Kierkegaard’s failure to appreciate “the regularity of nature” has been given what Hampson calls “scant recognition” by Kierkegaard scholars. They don’t recognize it because it isn’t there. It is hard to imagine a more spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard than Hampson’s on this point.

How could Hampson have gotten Kierkegaard so wrong? My guess is that it is because her reading of Kierkegaard is driven by her political agenda. She appears determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality.

Good thing readers of the NYRB have Gordon to alert them to this gross error in Hampson’s book! Except that Gordon doesn’t do that. Indeed, there are a host of problems his misses.

Like Hampson, Gordon isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar, so he doesn’t know enough about Kierkegaard to be able to identify when Hampson’s reading goes awry. He seems, in fact, to have a somewhat caricatured view of Kierkegaard himself. He’s correct, for example, in his claim that, according to Kierkegaard, there’s “an absolute chasm between God and humanity,” but not in his claim that that chasm makes God “wholly other” from human beings.

“[I]f God is absolutely different from human beings,” observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, “this cannot have its basis in what human beings owe to God (for to this extent they are related [beslægtet, literally “related” as in part of the same family])(119). According to Kierkegaard, the difference between human beings and God is sin. Sin keeps people from being able to see the likeness between themselves and God. The likeness is there, Kierkegaard believes, however, and can be appreciated, to some extent anyway, through the eyes of faith.

Kierkegaard did not, as Gordon claims, have a “disabling contempt for the public good.” His attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died was motivated in part by his outrage over the church’s own contempt for the public good, at least in the spiritual sense. Kierkegaard’s concern for the public good was not restricted, however, to this sense. The Danish scholar Peter Tudvad demonstrated in his meticulously documented watershed book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard not only gave considerable sums of money to the poor (pp. 370-377), but that he even went so far as to share his lodgings with a destitute family for several years (pp. 348-354).

Gordon attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Kierkegaard’s thought to the bicentennial of his birth in 2013, as well as to the publication of Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in 2000. He is undoubtedly correct about the bicentennial. What caused Kierkegaard’s name to remain in the headlines of Danish newspapers from 2000 until 2005, however, was not so much the publication of Garff’s biography as it was Tudvad’s revelations that the biography was riddled with factual errors and passages plagiarized from earlier Danish biographies of Kierkegaard, as well as the revelation that Garff had failed to fix these problems before the book was translated into English. Tudvad’s book, not Garff’s, is what gave scholars a fresh, and more accurate, impression of Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

But then it’s unlikely that Gordon would have known any of this, since he isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar. His book on Adorno touches on Kierkegaard, but that isn’t enough to make him a Kierkegaard scholar, so why did the NYRB have him review Hampson’s book? Could the answer be so straightforward as that Gordon teaches at Harvard? Talk about being “premodern,” is the NYRB so conservative that it’s actually resurrecting “the argument from authority,” the darling of medieval scholastics, so that the primary credential one needs to review a book for them is that one teaches at an ivy league school? A glance at the “contributors” section of the Nov. 10 edition in which Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book appears seems to support such a view. Three other reviews in that edition are by people from Harvard, three by people from Columbia, one by someone from Princeton and another by someone from Yale.

I’ll confess that I’m an avid reader of the NYRB and generally enjoy the articles it contains. I read it, in part, because I don’t have time to read every scholarly book that’s published in a given year (or even in a given week). I know that not everything that’s published is good, so I count on the NYRB and its stable of what I had hitherto assumed to be expert reviewers to sort through this material for me, to point out to me what is worth reading and what isn’t, to summarize for me some of the works that I’d ideally like to read, but probably won’t have time to read, so that I’ll be able to keep up with the latest developments in scholarship outside of my tiny field.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the reviews in the New York Review of Books are as misleading as is Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure most of them are as good as them seem. But how do I know which reviews are reliable and which are not?

I’m plagued now by a certain, you know, angst.

(This piece appeared originally under the title “The Angst of Scholarship at the NYRB: Getting Kierkegaard Wrong, Twice,” in the 8 November issue of Counterpunch. )

 

Kierkegaard as Cult Figure

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on October 19, 2016 at 9:08 pm
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Kierkegaard attacks Berlingske Tidende

Prudence Crowther, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, saw my blog post on the hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard in which I mention that there had apparently been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects after his death. Crowther wanted to know the source for that information, as well as for my assertion that Kierkegaard “had become a kind of cult figure at the time of his death.” The NYRB is publishing a review of the British theologian Daphne Hampson’s book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) and they were thinking of using the caricature that accompanied that blog post to illustrate the review.

It is fairly well known among Kierkegaard scholars that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure by the time of his death. Hansine Andræ, the wife of C.G. Andræ, a mathematician and liberal Danish politician observed in her diary that Kierkegaard had a “large readership” and that his attack on the church at the end of his life “aroused a great sensation” (Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark [Indiana, 1990] p. 483). Many, though not all, prominent Danish intellectuals reacted badly to Kierkegaard’s attack on the church, but there was a great deal of sympathy with it on the part of common people.

Copenhagen is, and was even more so in Kierkegaard’s day, a small town with an even smaller community of intellectuals. Nearly everyone who did not actually know Kierkegaard personally, knew of him, if for no other reason, because he was so often caricatured in popular periodicals such as Corsaren and Folkets Nisse. As I mentioned in the blog post that had drawn Ms. Crowther’s attention, “[o]ne of the most important discoveries Peter Tudvad made when working on his book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004), was that the attacks on Kierkegaard in the satirical newspaper The Corsair, were not confined to 1846, as scholars had assumed, but actually spanned the period from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.” The caricature above was published in The Corsair in 1848. It depicts Kierkegaard beating up on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende for its having the audacity to praise him when this, according to Tudvad’s caption to the drawing as it appears in his book, was a privilege Kierkegaard granted only to Bishop Mynster.

Kierkegaard also enjoyed a certain popularity with the common people because of his edifying writings, his pietist leanings, and his skewering in his writings of important Danish cultural figures. So Kierkegaard was known either personally, or by reputation by nearly everyone. This was likely the reason for the crowd at his burial, as well as for what Flemming Chr. Nielsen refers to as the “scandal” (Nielsen, p. 7) and what I have heard other scholars refer to as the “riot” caused by Kierkegaard’s nephew, the physician Henrik Lund, when he made a speech during Kierkegaard’s burial protesting that Kierkegaard had not wanted a church burial. It wasn’t actually a riot, according to Tudvad’s description at the end of his Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004 [pp. 483-484). Rioting is a little extreme for Danes. The muted applause with which Lund’s speech was met by some in the crowd is about as close to rioting as the Danes get.

So it seems relatively safe to say that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death. I realized, however, after I received Ms. Crowther’s email, that I had no source for my observation that there was apparently an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, no source, that is, other than the caption of the drawing. It says, literally, “Scene at the Auction of Søren Kierkegaard.” Well, okay, “efter” doesn’t usually mean “of.” It usually means “after.” Still, the meaning of the caption is pretty unambiguous. Realizing, however, that I had no other evidence to substantiate the claim that there had been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, I wrote to Peter Tudvad, to see if he could enlighten me on this point. Scholars have long known that Kierkegaard’s books were auctioned off after his death, though they know as well that Kierkegaard began divesting himself of certain of his books before he died, so the facsimile of the auction catalog that one can purchase from the Royal Library in Copenhagen is not the final word on whether Kierkegaard ever owned a particular book. Until I saw the caricature of two women fighting over one of his shirts, however, I had not heard anything about his personal effects being auctioned as well.

They were. Tudvad sent me a link to the book Alt Blev Godt Betalt: Auktionen over Søren Kierkegaard’s indbo (Everything was Paid For: The Auction of Kierkegaard’s Personal Effects) by Flemming Chr. Nielsen (Holkenfeldt, 2000) an annotated version of the auction catalog of Kierkegaard’s personal effects from which I quoted above. My curiosity was piqued, however, so I didn’t want to wait for the book to arrive from Denmark. As luck would have it, the library over at the University of Pennsylvania had a copy.

Kierkegaard apparently had little of real value, just the sort of comfortable furnishing anyone in a similar situation would have (although he had lots of curtains, apparently because, he worried about the effect of bright light on his eyes [Pap. X3 A 144]). He had a few other peculiarities such what his personal secretary, Israel Levin, described as an “unbelievable number of walking sticks” (Nielsen, p. 30) and 30 bottles of wine (quite a cellar for a small apartment such as the one in which he was living when he died).

There was nothing really out of the ordinary among Kierkegaard’s personal effects, yet the sale netted more than twice the amount it had been estimated it would, and that lends further support to the view that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death.

Nielsen made an interesting discovery when doing the research for his book on the auction. It concerns a framed print that it appears Kierkegaard’s older brother, Niels Andreas, must have sent to him from the U.S. where he’d emigrated in 1832. Nielsen actually wrote a whole book on Niels Andreas Kierkegaard, Ind i verdens vrimmel: Søren Kierkegaards ukendte bror (In the tumult of the world: Søren Kierkegaard’s unknown brother). I’ve never read that book, but now I am curious about it, so I ordered a copy from abebooks.com. I’ll do a post about the book, and about the print Niels Andreas apparently sent to Kierkegaard, after I have had a chance to read it. If you are interested in reading it yourself, abebooks still has one more copy available.

That book has to make its way over here from Denmark, however, so it will be a while before I can post about it. Hampson’s book, on the other hand, is available as an ebook, so I’ve already started reading it and will be posting about it soon.

The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on October 6, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015), Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) ((1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “belief” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator of the one translation included in the books being reviewed. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That omission was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If Kirmmse is “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators,” it’s odd that a review of a translation by him would fail to mention that he was the translator. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of this blog are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the currency of his ethics.

Kirmmse didn’t become “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” until after he translated a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard into English. As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure that the author of that biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to this blog entitled “Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

Summer at “The Farm”

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on October 2, 2016 at 6:13 pm
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Nigerian Kierkegaard scholar Benneth Anozie, American Kierkegaard scholar Vincent A. McCarthy, and Brian J. Foley, Esq.

Bucks County has got to be one of the most beautiful places in PA, if not in the entire U.S. It has long attracted artists and was the home of the famous Bucks County impressionists. I am very fortunate to have a friend, David Leopold, who owns a large property in Bucks County that was once the home of Bucks County impressionist Ben Solowey. David, who is the archivist for both Al Hirschfeld and David Levine, as well as a freelance curator, is also the director of the Studio of Ben Solowey, a small museum and art gallery that was once Solowey’s studio. I house sit for David for several weeks every summer.

I was house sitting this summer when I received an email from Vincent A. McCarthy. McCarthy had met a Nigerian scholar, Benneth Anozie at a conference at St. Olaf College. Anozie, he explained, was eager to meet me because he was working on a dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Would I be around to get together with Anozie, asked McCarthy? When I explained that I was not actually in Philly, but at a farm in Bucks County, McCarthy said that would not be a problem, that he and Anozie could drive up there. I was surprised at first by McCarthy’s willingness to undertake such a long drive for a short meeting. Little did I know that McCarthy is a man of extraordinarily refined tastes. He also has a property in Bucks County. “I need to mow my lawn anyway,” he explained. So I told him to come on up and we would make a day of it.

My husband, Brian, and I gave Benneth and Vincent a champagne tour of the then current exhibition Homage: Ben Solowey’s Art Inspired by his Influences. It was a wonderful visit that included a sumptuous meal with more wine. We didn’t talk too much about Kierkegaard. I did get a few minutes, however, to talk to Anozie about Kierkegaard’s epistemology and we are now connected through Linkedin. I was also very fortunate in that Vincent brought me a copy of his new book Kierkegaard as Psychologist (Northwestern, 2015). I’ve only just started it so I can’t say very much about it yet. I can say, however, that the introduction is one of the best short introductions to Kierkegaard that I have ever read. The book, explains McCarthy

is intended to highlight the incredibly rich and deep psychological dimensions of Kierkegaard’s thought, to offer an appreciation and assessment of it, and to serve somewhat as an introduction and commentary on Kierkegaard’s psychology for general readers with an interest in, but not necessarily in possession of detailed knowledge of Kierkegaard’s corpus and Kierkegaard scholarship as such.

That said, a brief survey of the table of contents, combined with an appreciation of the depth of McCarthy’s understanding of Kierkegaard as exhibited in the introduction suggests that the book will be of enormous help to dedicated Kierkegaard scholars as well. There’s a bizarre lacuna in Kierkegaard scholarship concerning Kierkegaard’s psychology. There’s Kresten Nordentoft’s eponymous book from 1972, Steve Evans’ excellent Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counseling and Pastoral Care from 1990, and the essays collected in Kierkegaard’s Truth: The Disclosure of the Self, vol. 5 of a series entitled Psychiatry and the Humanities, from 1981, but that’s not very much given how important human psychology was among Kierkegaard’s interests and how profound are his insights into that psychology.

Kierkegaard’s authorship, asserts McCarthy at the end of the introduction,

stresses what he holds to be a timeless prescription as it engages in a profound analysis of forms of alienation and dis-ease with oneself. The “patients” he selects are modeled on nineteenth-century types, but he quickly penetrates beneath the nineteenth-century surface to reveal souls whose restlessness and discontent Augustine in the fourth century and we in the twenty-first have little trouble recognizing. And it is because of his penetration to a problem that transcends but is not unconnected with any particular age and society that Kierkegaard can seem very modern indeed, that he can sometimes seem a contemporary of Freud and Maslow and not just Brahms and Liszt.

I could not have said it better myself. I can’t wait to read more of this book. I’ll present more thoughts on it in later posts.

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McCarthy and Anozie with a self-portrait of Solowey behind Anozie

Irenaeus and Kierkegaard on Christian Knowledge

In Conference news, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on July 18, 2016 at 11:45 am
Keynote panel

Jonathan Lear, Tanya Luhrmann, Elaine Pagels, and Jeffry Kripal

I presented a paper at a conference entitled The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psycholgy at the University of Chicago in March of 2015. I meant to post my thoughts on that conference immediately after its conclusion, but a number of other commitments kept me from being able to do that. The conference, sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, was extraordinarily stimulating. The keynote speakers were Jeffry Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Rice University, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in the Department of Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy), Stanford University, and Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Princeton University.

I was excited to be on the same program with Jonathan Lear and Elaine Pagels. I am a huge admirer of both scholars. Lear is an extraordinarily talented scholar who has done some wonderful work on Kierkegaard as well as on classical philosophy and psychoanalysis and although Pagels has not, to my knowledge, written on Kierkegaard, her books on the history of Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular have been very helpful to me.

It was Pagels’ presentation, “’Making a Difference’: How Promoting Exploration of Human Experience Became Heresy,” that prompted this post. Much of that presentation was directed against Irenaeus and his attacks on the Gnostics. Pagels argued that Irenaeus was dismissive of human experience and antagonistic to the idea, so central to Gnosticism, that human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine. In fact, she attributed this antagonism, as the title of her presentation suggests, not merely to Irenaeus, but to orthodox Christianity more generally.

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Slide of Irenaeus from Pagels’ presentation

As I said, I am a huge admirer of Pagels, but that account of Irenaeus, and the Christian tradition more generally struck me as simply false and I said as much during the question period. Knowledge of the divine is clearly possible according to Kierkegaard, as I argue in my book Ways Of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). God, observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae]” (Crumbs, 126).

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (Ignatius Press, 1990) that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι] for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (Against the Heresies, p. 45).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned in Against the Heresies to reject the claim of the Gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (Against the Heresies, 45).

Man’s imperfection, or sin, is for Irenaeus, the obstacle to his attaining specifically Christian knowledge. Thus Irenaeus observes that “the Word of the Father [i.e., Christ] and the Spirit of God [i.e., faith in Christ], united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation [i.e., man], made man living and perfect capable of knowing the perfect Father” (Against the Heresies, p. 57). But sinful man is no longer perfect and hence is incapable of knowing God without the intermediacy of Christ. Thus Irenaeus asserts that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

Can “the truth be taught?” asks Kierkegaard in Crumbs (88). His answer, of course, is yes–if God himself teaches it. In other words, Kierkegaard’s claim in Crumbs that union with God is necessary in order for specifically Christian knowledge to be possible echoes exactly Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

I presented a paper concerning the similarity of Kierkegaard’s view on the possibility of religious knowledge with those of both Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2011 and was figuratively besieged by admiring Patristics scholars throughout the rest of the conference.

I’m not in a position, of course, to comment upon Pagels’ more general claim that Irenaeus, and the later Christian tradition, was dismissive of human experience. She is certainly correct to the extent that Christianity assumes human experience, characterized as it is by sin, is profoundly problematic as a means for coming to understand the truth. The picture of Irenaeus’ objection to Gnosticism that one gets from Against the Heresies relates, however, to the Gnostics’ condemnation of physical reality, as well as to their elitism, or their view that only a tiny select group of human beings, the πνευματικοι, could know God.

I was very fortunate to share drinks with both Pagels and Luhrmann just before the conference dinner and Pagels assured me then that there were other works by Irenaeus that would support her view that he was dismissive of human experience. She neglected to mention what works those were. But it is not inconceivable that other writings by Irenaeus might display a certain ambivalence about what one could call the “authority” of human experience, since the Christian tradition more generally is ambivalent about this “authority.” Human experience certainly has a kind of authority, however, for Irenaeus. It just isn’t the same kind of authority it has for the Gnostics.

It is clear, however, both that Irenaeus believed human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine and that this view is an important part of the Christian tradition.

 

Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

In Uncategorized on May 23, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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McGill Cap

I’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright scholarship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see photo below).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, as a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience through its co-op programs that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not only not angry with me, but eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for my other blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length. It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put them together, a summer when I could have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work required of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.

Cap and Gown

 

 

Erasmus Montanus

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 at 5:57 pm
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Scene from a production of Erasmus Montanus by Bagsværd Amatørescene, Photographer: Flemming Mortensen

There are two places in Kierkegaard’s published and unpublished works where he refers to the earth being “as flat as a pancake.” The first is in his review of H.C. Andersen’s failed attempt at a novel, Kun en Spillemand, that was published under the title of From the Papers of One Still Living, and the second is in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs

The second reference will no doubt be familiar to Kierkegaard scholars. It is in that passage where Kierkegaard, or Johannes Climacus, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published the Postscript, illustrates his claim that the mere utterance of an objective truth is not in itself evidence that the person who utters it is sane. “Let me recount an incident,” he begins, “that without any kind of adaptation from my side, comes straight from an insane asylum.” He then tells the story of a man who escapes from this asylum and on his way into town, finds a little skittle ball lying on the ground. He absent-mindedly picks up the ball and puts it in the tail pocket of his coat. As he walks, the ball gently hits him, explains Climacus, on his “a – “ and presumably, the fact of it’s being a ball, reminds him every time it strikes him that the earth is round. Since he knows that everyone agrees that the earth is round, he decides that the best way to convince people that he is sane is to go about saying continually ”the earth is round!”

“And indeed is not the earth round?” ask Climacus. “Does the asylum crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion as when everyone believed it to be as flat as a pancake?” (Hannay, 164). This reference to the earth being “flat as a pancake” is clearly an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s play Erasmus Montanus. I cannot remember how I learned this. I could have sworn it was in an explanatory note in either one of the English translations of the Postscript or in the text as it appears in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. But I have searched in vain for such a note, though SKS does acknowledge that the first appearance of this phrase in Kierkegaard’s works, the one in From the Papers of One Still Living is an allusion to the Holberg play.

Since there are at least two references to this play in Kierkegaard’s works, I felt that I should read it. I didn’t own a copy, however, so I did a google search, in the hope that I could find a copy online. I did. Not only did I find a copy, but I found a download able copy in English translation!

The play is hilarious. The Danes like to claim Holberg as one of their own, but in fact, he was Norwegian. The thing is, Denmark ruled Norway back then, so Norwegians were viewed, more or less, as Danes, particularly if they distinguished themselves the way Holberg did. I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. Back in the 18th century, when the play is set, residents of Norway who wanted a university education typically attended the University of Copenhagen. So Rasmus Berg, the eldest son of a prosperous farmer does just that.

I don’t know if all the instruction was in Latin back then, but at least some of it was. Students were typically taught to argue in Latin and showy Latin disputations were part and parcel of university life. Rasmus Berg returns to his little mountain village as Erasmus Montanus, determined to impress everyone with his new learning. Unfortunately for him, the local deacon succeeds in convincing the poor townsfolk, none of whom know a word of Latin, that he is beating the pants off Berg, or Montanus, in Latin disputation even though the Latin he purports to be speaking is nothing but gibberish, bits and pieces of Latin grammar, and other odd words and phrases that he strings together to form nonsensical sentences that he utters with such passionate conviction that everyone feels sorry for poor Berg, or Montanus, for being shown up that way in public.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The townsfolk are so scandalized when Berg, or Montanus, informs them that the earth is round, that his future father-in-law withdraws his permission for Berg to marry his daughter. Berg, or Montanus, is forced, finally, to recant his statement that the earth is round in order to win the hand of his ladylove.

Interesting, eh? Not only was Kierkegaard understandably taken with the play, the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for his life. There are lines in it about how the earth must be flat because everyone but Montanus thinks it is, and that truth is in numbers. There is the general backwardness of the mountain people that mirrors what Kierkegaard thought of as the backwardness, or philistinism, of the people in the little market town of Copenhagen. And then there is the fact that Montanus had to surrender his calling as an intellectual, to betray his learning, to betray what he knew to be true, in order to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life. This, as we all know, was a sacrifice Kierkegaard could not himself make.

I have come to believe that there are likely many more allusions to this particular play in Kierkegaard’s authorship than have yet been recognized as such. If you can find one yourself, please send it along. Perhaps we can write a collective paper on the influence this play on Kierkegaard’s works, and if there are enough of us, then everyone will have to admit that our claims are correct –– right?

(Hannay, who is generally an excellent translator of Kierkegaard, has inexplicably rendered the Danish Keglekugle as “skittle bowl” instead of “skittle ball.” Perhaps this is some kind of Anglicism with which I am unfamiliar. The object in question is indisputably a skittle ball, however, as both earlier English translations of the Postscript indicate, no matter what people in the UK call it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Repetition

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues, Uncategorized on February 17, 2016 at 3:23 pm

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I’m doing another independent study on Kierkegaard. We’re reading Repetition. My student was having trouble understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and so he asked me if there were anything about the Danish term that would help him to make more sense of it. It had not occurred to me that knowing something about the Danish might make the concept clearer. I’m so used to thinking about Kierkegaard in Danish, that I forget, sometimes, just how difficult it can be to understand him in translation. In fact, knowing the Danish term for “repetition,” and its meaning can be a significant help, I believe, in understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of it.

The Danish term for “repetition” is gentagelsen (or Gjentagelsen in 19th-century Danish). It’s a compound expression made by combining at tage (“to take”) with the prefix gen, that itself comes from the adverb igen (which means “again”). So gentagelse literally means “to take again.” And that, in a nutshell is what, I would argue, it means for Kierkegaard. The book Repetition is essentially about temporality, about how time flows unceasingly onward, wresting from us every precious moment of our existence like an irresistible tidal force that consigns them immediately to the unrecoverable ocean of the past. It is about how time, unchecked, in a sense deprives us of our lives. We swim furiously toward the future in an effort to save ourselves. But the effort exhausts us, so that we are finally swallowed up by the waves.

That’s a pretty bleak perspective on human existence, I know. The point of Repetition, however, is to make clear that this is not our inevitable fate. The point is that we must learn to check the flow of time, to stop it. Repetition is a movement forward, but it is not one of flight. “Repetition and recollection,” explains Constantine Constantius, “are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards (p. 3 Kindle Edition).

How does one “recollect” something “forwards” – by making it present again. I often use the example of my obsession with fountain pens to try to make this concept clear to my students. I have a lot of fountain pens, mostly vintage ones that I buy on eBay. I go through periods where I buy a lot of pens. The problem is that the more time I spend searching for vintage pens, the less time I spend using, and hence appreciating, the pens I have. I have had to learn this over and over again.

I have some truly wonderful pens. The prize of my collection is a Pelikan 100, made sometime between 1934-38. It is just gorgeous, in almost mint condition, and writes like a dream. And yet, I have begun to lust after the new Pelikan M101N red that is a reproduction of the old 100N. I have to keep reminding myself that I would not like it so much as I think, that I don’t like any new thing so much as I like genuine vintage things. I have to force myself to get off eBay and go pull out my actual vintage 100 pen. When I do that, each time I do that, I am delighted anew by what a wonderful piece of engineering my old 100 is, what a beautiful object. Each time I write with it, I am charmed anew by the thought of its past. I wonder if perhaps it belonged to some Jewish scholar, or to a member of a resistance group such as Uncle Emile, the one to which the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich belonged. Sometimes I think perhaps it might have belonged to a Nazi, and then I think I am redeeming it now when I use it write pieces such as the one I wrote on the concept of collective guilt.

When I make myself return to my old Pelikan, all the joy I took it in when I first got it comes back to me. The thing is, I have to force myself to do that sometimes, to go back to my old pen rather than spend my time searching for a new one. That’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. I know from experience, from repeated experience, how wonderful my pen is and how much pleasure I will take in it if I can only make myself use it rather than search for a new one.

It is a strange fact of human psychology that we seem always in pursuit of the new and the novel, at the mercy of time, of constant flux, unable to learn, or to benefit, from experience, unable to harness it for the purposes of our own self-actualization, or as Jung would put it, “individuation.” I think it’s that aspect of human psychology that’s the focus of Repetition, the subtitle of which is “An Essay in Experimental Psychology.” Constantine Constantius tries an experiment to see if this enslavement is an essential fact of human psychology or if it is possible to liberate oneself from it. I am not going to answer that question for you. You will have to read the book and decide for yourself whether Constantius’s experiment was successful.

No issue could be more important to Kierkegaard than the one that preoccupies Constantius. Our apparent enslavement to the flow of time keeps us from becoming who we are, or perhaps, more accurately from being who we are. We are supposed to be not simply to have been and to become. We have being, however, only in the present and to have the present, we must, in effect stop the flow of time. That’s an act of will, a refusal to let the uniqueness of our experience slip away into the unrecoverable past. Hence the active voice of repetition, to “take” again.

There is more to the concept of repetition than that. Strangely, Kierkegaard does not seem to use the expression much after 1843. I would argue, however, that the concept remains central to his authorship. The “rebirth” of the individual in the “moment” that is spoken of in Philosophical Crumbs is a repetition, of sorts, of one’s original birth and all the promise it implied. The effort to live Christianly, to imitate Christ, involves a constant renewal of faith, a constant renewal of the effort to bring one’s faith to concrete expression. These renewals are, of course, repetitions.

It would be nice to see more scholarly work done on this rich and yet relatively neglected concept in Kierkegaard’s thought. If no one else does it, then perhaps I will do it myself.

 

 

Report on 2016 Eastern APA Meeting

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2016 at 2:57 pm

APA Plenary Address '16The 2016 annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association took place on January 6-9 at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. The Søren Kierkegaard Society sponsored a session around the middle of the first day. Unfortunately, there was a mistake in the scheduling of that session. It was given a two-hour slot when it should have been given a three-hour slot. There were four speakers scheduled to present in that session and there is no way four people can present papers in a two hour session, so the session was moved to a three-hour time slot later that afternoon.

Jeffrey Hanson, who bears a striking resemblance to Kierkegaard, chaired the session, so he dutifully stood outside the room where the session should originally have taken place and alerted people to its new time and place. It looked to be a great session. The speakers were: Antony Aumann of Northern Michigan University, Jerome Gellman of Ben-Gurion University, Birte Loschenkohl of the University of Chicago, and Anthony Rudd, of St. Olaf College. Aumann’s paper was entitled “On Kierkegaard, Art, and Autonomy.” Gellman’s paper was “Volition and the Leap of Faith.” Loschenkohl’s was “Exception, Suspension, and Resistance in Kierkegaard (and Schmitt).” And Rudd’s was “Was Kierkegaard a Divine Command Theorist? Should He Have Been?”

Sadly, I cannot report on that session because I was scheduled to chair a session on the philosophy of religion that afternoon during the same time as the rescheduled Kierkegaard session.

So why am I writing on this year’s APA session if I cannot report on the Kierkegaard papers? Good question. I’m writing because it was otherwise a fantastic meeting, the best I have ever attended, and much of what made it so great touches on things near and dear to Kierkegaard, and to many Kierkegaard scholars.

The first thing I liked about the meeting was that it was much smaller and hence more intimate and collegial than any of the earlier meetings I’ve attended. Just how small it was is apparent in the photo above of the plenary session in which the chair of the NEH spoke about two new NEH grant programs. (More about that below.)

Of course the reasons for low attendance at this year’s meeting are sad. Higher education is in trouble. Enrollments are down pretty much across the board, so there are not many new positions being advertised. Moreover, drops in enrollments mean there is less money to send hiring committees to the meeting to interview job candidates, as was standard practice in the past. Much interviewing is now done via Skype. The positive side of this was that the sometimes oppressive air of desperation generated by frantic job seekers (we’ve all been there) was conspicuously absent. My impression was that most attendees were established professionals and most of those people are understandably happier and less frantic than people on the job market.

The positive atmosphere of the meeting was enhanced even further by a pronounced focus on the responsibilities philosophers bear to the general public. This is the aspect of the meeting that I think will interest Kierkegaard scholars. Kierkegaard insisted that philosophy should be relevant to the life of the individual, that it should not be a purely abstract, or academic, activity.

The plenary address on Thursday was given by William “Bro” Adams, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Adams spoke about two new grant programs the NEH has to encourage philosophers to reach out to the general public. The first is the Public Scholar Program. The is a grant program that gives support to individuals working on “well-researched books in the humanities intended to reach a broad readership.” The second program is “The Humanities in the Public Square.” This program “supports scholarly forums, public discussions, and educational resources related to the themes of a new NEH initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.”

The plenary address was not the only part of the meeting that emphasized the duty of philosophers to engage with the general public. There was a session on the first day, sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy, on “Current Ethical and Justice Issues in Higher Education” that included a panel of seven scholars. There was a session the next day, sponsored by the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, entitled “Philosophy for the Public: Reports from the Field and National Endowment for Humanities Grants.” Lynne Tirrell of UMass Boston spoke on “Philosophy in Public: Modes of Engagements and Topics of Choice.” Peter Fristedt and Mark Silver, both from the NEH, spoke on the aforementioned NEH grant programs and offered advice on how to apply for them. Michael Lynch of U of Connecticut spoke on “Writing Philosophy for the Public,” and Gaurev Vazirani of Yale talked about Yale’s new philosophy blog WiPhi in a paper entitled “WiPhi: Developing Online Public Philosophy.”

Cool, eh? If you’ve been reading this blog since its launch in 2010, you have been in the forefront of the philosophical movement to bring philosophy to the general public. If you are a Kierkegaard scholar, you may be surprised to learn that many non-scholars also read this blog. I know because they occasionally email me about how much they love Kierkegaard even though they are not themselves scholars. I have actually endeavored to make this blog interesting to a wider public with the “Once Upon a Time in Copenhagen” and other similar posts. If you haven’t read any of those posts, I encourage you to go back and check them out. Some of them are pretty fun.

Also, if you haven’t yet checked out my other blog The Life of the Mind, definitely do that. I write there on a variety of issues of general interest, such as the First Amendment, race, and even the practical value of philosophical study, and I often manage to work in a reference to Kierkegaard. That blog now has more than 4,000 subscribers. How is that for engaging with the public!

I’m not done yet, however, in describing the emphasis at this most recent APA meeting on what philosophy can contribute to general public. There were two sessions sponsored by the National Philosophical Counseling Association (not to be confused with the American Philosophical Practitioners’ Association, another organization dedicated to philosophical counseling). Philosophical counseling is, I think, one of the most important ways that philosophers can show the relevance of philosophy to the lives of people who are not themselves professional philosophers. Different philosophical counselors practice their craft in different ways, of course. The most productive approach, I believe, however, is to view philosophical counseling as a kind of individual philosophical tutoring with an emphasis on how the mere activity of reflecting on one’s life can actually improve the quality of it.

The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) held a session entitled “The Obligations of Philosophers.” I particularly enjoyed Jackie Kegley’s paper. The title was, unfortunately, not listed in the conference program and I don’t now recall the title she gave it. It was very similar, however, to the title of her contribution to the volume Practicing Philosophy as Experiencing Life: Essays on American Pragmatism (Brill/Rodopi, 2015). I’d seen that volume in the Book Exhibit, but hadn’t bought it. I was so favorably impressed by Kegley’s talk, however, that I ran right back to the Book Exhibit after the session and bought what I believe was their only copy.

There were lots of other sessions, such as the one entitled “Philosophy and Happiness” (sponsored by the American Association for the Philosophic Study of Society) whose titles clearly indicated the topics discussed would be of interest to a broader audience than just scholars. I’d never seen anything like it in all my years of attending the APA. I don’t mean to suggest that professional philosophy has been transformed overnight from a vicious adversarial discipline to a unified udaimonistic movement. Daily Nous reported that “play nice” was overheard by at least a few conference attendees, so there is still work to be done.

All-in-all, however, this year’s meeting was an uplifting experience and highlighted that the discipline is indeed moving in new and more positive directions that will benefit not only professionals, but humanity as a whole. That is certainly something Kierkegaard would applaud!